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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Red-breasted Merganser, female”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Red-breasted Merganser, female”

  • $ 52,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Red-breasted Merganser, female”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 58b of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes
London, ca. 1820
Signed l.l.: PJ Selby
Paper size: 12 1/4 x 16 1/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin

Selby wrote of plate 58: 
“Upon the Northumbrian and other coasts on the north of England, this species is a regular winter visitant, but always more abundantly in severe than in mild seasons. It haunts the bays and inlets where small streams discharge themselves, as well as the estuaries of rivers, but seldom advances far beyond the influence of the tide. The greater part of those that visit us are females, and young males in the immature plumage; in which state, except as to size, they strongly resemble the former. In the Highlands and Isles of Scotland these birds are found at all seasons of the year, making the fresh-water lakes of the interior their residence during the summer, and in winter, should these become frozen, resorting to the salt-water islets. They breed upon the margins of the lakes, or, upon the islets with which many of them are diversified.

Upon Loch Awe, in the Western Highlands, they are common, and their nests have been repeatedly found by Sir William Jardine and myself upon the several islands that Nest, &c. beautify its western extremity. — The nest is always situated a few yards beyond the highest water-line, frequently beside a large stone covered with brambles, and coarse herbage, or under the shelter of some thick bush. It is composed of dried grass, small roots, &c, intermixed with feathers and a quantity of the down of the bird, which (as in the case of the Eider, and some other ducks), appears to be added to as incubation advances. The eggs are from seven to eleven in number, of a colour intermediate between cream-yellow and wood-brown, and in size and shape like those of the Common Duck. The bird sits remarkably close, and will sometimes allow itself to be almost trodden upon, before it will quit the nest.

As soon as incubation commences, the old males desert the females (a habit, indeed, which may be observed in many species of the Anatidce), and assemble in companies of three or four together. About this time, also, their plumage undergoes a considerable change, losing the deep colouring of the head and back, which parts become of a dingy cinereous grey, that is retained till the general (or autumnal) moult commences. This Merganser is an excellent diver, remaining for a long time submerged, during which it makes rapid progress. In this way it frequently escapes when wounded, merely raising its bill above water to take breath, and again dipping down, without causing any perceptible disturbance of the surface. — It feeds principally upon fish; and in two individuals that I dissected, and which were killed at the mouth of a small rivulet, flowing into Budle Bay, on the Northumbrian shore, I found the esophagus and stomach gorged with a quantity of small eels, not exceeding two or three inches in length, and, as far as I could judge, of the common species. This bird is widely distributed throughout the northern parts of Europe, Northern Asia, and North America, retiring to high latitudes during the summer, and in winter regulating its advances towards the equator by the state of the season. The trachea of the male bird differs from that of the Goosander, in having but one enlargement, which commences about two inches and a half below the glottis, and which, when extended, is upwards of three inches long, and is more than four times the diameter of the parts immediately above and below. About three inches above the lower larynx the tube becomes much flattened, and is formed of eighteen or twenty rings (broad and large on the back, but fine and narrow on the front view), the spaces between them being covered by a fine membrane; and this part much resembles the corresponding portion of the trachea of the Long-tailed Haveld (Havclda glacialis). The tympanum is very large, and of an irregular heart-shape, being formed of two large bony protuberances, which, taken together, measure two inches in length by one inch and a half in width, and both of which are furnished with a lateral drum-like membrane.

The Female, which bears a strong resemblance to that of the preceding species, but of inferior size, and having the speculum, or white part upon the wing, divided by a black bar, formed by a part of the basal half of the secondaries being exposed to view. Crown of the head, and occipital crest liver-brown. Sides of the head and neck pale reddish-brown. Chin and throat white. Upper plumage (in winter) deep broccoli-brown; the feathers upon the mantle and sides of the breast being margined with greyish-white. Under plumage white. Flanks broccoli-brown, margined paler. Bill and legs dingy orange. Irides red.”


Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)

Considered by many as the English equivalent of Audubon, Prideaux John Selby created some of the most memorable bird images of the nineteenth-century. His contributions to British ornithology were rivaled only by those of John Gould. Yet, his pictures were larger and less purely scientific, exhibiting Selby’s distinctive and charming style. A sense of Selby’s enthusiasm for his subjects is nowhere more palpable than in his engaging original watercolors. Selby executed these delightful images as preparatory models for his landmark printed series, Illustrations of British Ornithology. While the artist’s engraved work is highly desirable to collectors, Selby’s original watercolors rarely become available. This selection of watercolors, moreover, comprises several of his masterpieces. The distinctive birds are depicted in profile, their forms delineated by softly modulated tones of black and gray wash. The setting, if present, is lightly but skillfully painted to not distract from the birds themselves. The skill and delicacy of Selby’s touch, his keen powers of observation, and his artistic sensitivity are conveyed here in a way they are not in his printed work. Several of the drawings are by Selby’s brother-in-law, Robert Mitford, but signed in Selby’s hand. 

Born in Northumberland and educated at University College, Oxford, Selby was a landowner and squire with ample time to devote to studying the plant and animal life at his country estate, Twizell House. As a boy, he had studied the habits of local birds, drawn them, and learned how to preserve and set up specimens. Later, Selby became an active member of several British natural history societies and contributed many articles to their journals. Although Selby was interested in botany and produced a History of British Trees in 1842, he is best known for his Illustrations of British Ornithology. Selby’s work was the first attempt to create a set of life-sized illustrations of British birds, remarkable for their naturalism and the delicacy of their execution. The British Ornithology was issued in nineteen parts over thirteen years; the book consisted of 89 plates of land birds and 129 plates of water birds, engraved by William Lizars of Edinburgh, the printer who engraved the first ten plates of Audubon’s Birds of America.

With their rich detail and tonal range, these exquisite watercolors are beautiful works by one of the foremost British bird painters. Furthermore, they represent a singular opportunity to obtain a unique piece of the highest quality by this luminary artist, from an era in British ornithological art that remains unparalleled. 

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